Photo by Pauline Pallier
Steve Diggle interview by David Gavan
In 2006, I was listening to a punk compilation CD. A Buzzcocks' tune, "Flat Pack Philosophy," with its slamming intro and concisely melodic chorus, sounded too vital to be a new offering (that riff is massive: it suggests the Who jamming with Metallica). At the same time, this sounded like music made by people who had processed grunge and latter-day indie rock. There was also something modishly pristine about the production. In any event, I liked the way the opening riff snapped into place like self-assembly furniture; it reminded me of how early Buzzcocks' song "Boredom"'s two note guitar solo wryly essayed a sense of ennui. Reverse onomatopoeia? Although the Flat Pack Philosophy (2006) album proved to be an uneven effort – this job lot mixes the nimble and the clodhopping – there was enough chainsawed petal grandeur to keep listeners hooked. I thought it might be a good time to interview Buzzcocks' guitarist/vocalist Steve Diggle. So I did, and this is what he said.
ED NOTE: This article originally in South London Press, 2006.
Q: You've done a lot of gigging in recent years, how do you feel about your connection with the audience nowadays?
SD: Fantastic. It's the same old story: there's the older, loyal fans and then the young kids discovering Buzzcocks for the first time.
Q: How do you avoid becoming a "former glories" karaoke act?
SD: Well, when we started, we just wanted to make statements about what was important in our lives - it was never about money. The same goes for our newer stuff; it's written from experience, and I think people can tell.
Q: There's always been a balance in your music between pop and poetry, hasn't there? Without your ever being sent to 'Pseuds' Corner.' Say something about that.
SD: Definitely. As a writer, you want to communicate, so you need to keep things simple. That's what I like about Chekhov. Sometimes, it takes time to get there, though; to not be too verbose. Good work has nothing to do with showing off. As for the pop thing, we grew up on the Beatles and the Who, and bands like the Ramones. Whatever they had to say, there was always a great tune.
Q: Harmony In My Head was the title of your autobiography and is also one of Buzzcocks' most pulverisingly memorable tunes. Is it true that the lyrics were inspired by James Joyce's Ulysses?
SD: Yeah, I was dealing with the information overload of modern life and what that does to the inside of your head. That's why it's got that sledgehammer rhythm: it's disorientating, but exciting at the same time. In the late seventies, Manchester was building shopping malls and things were becoming homogenized. Dehumanized. In a way, my song on this new album, "Sell You Everything," is an update of "Harmony in My Head." It's about people slogging their guts out in jobs they hate, and living for the dream of Friday/Saturday night. We're sold this idea that feeding the system by grafting away at work, then being fobbed off with the consumer experiences our wages can buy us is a good enough bargain. But then, the stuff we want comes from the media brainwashing us. Advances in technology are feeding into that. That's why I have that line: "Some things are funny under the street light." We're living in a twilight world where relationships aren't real.
Q: Certain songs from 1979, such as "I Believe," depict the newly Thatcherite times ("There is no love in this world anymore") and, seemingly, project towards the coming postmodern meltdown of shared social "truths."
SD: You're right. There was a sense that a change was coming and, as a writer, you pick up on the times. We weren't the only ones doing that: think of the Clash's London Calling (1979). It's just about using our daily experiences and trying to wrap it all up in a good tune.
Q: Your music is seen by many as an antidote to punk-lite bands like Green Day. What's your view?
SD: We were never interested in "by numbers" pastiche. Since Radiohead and Pop Idol, there's a new generation of Blue Peter presenters carving out careers in rock.
Q: After the Smiths' split in 1987, with the onset of the acid house movement, there was a real 'New Lad' mentality abroad. It was trendy to read soft porn, 'male interest' mags and talk drivel with varying degrees of ironic distance. How do you feel about that?
SD: Yeah, well, there's not much inspiration coming from that kind of thing. Much as it was fun to dance yourself silly in the acid house days, it wasn't as ideas-based movement in the way that punk was. When I was on the dole, I was constantly on the couch reading poetry, and that enriched my soul. At least there's something you can take away from that. These days, we're living in an intellectually lighter world. But having said that - although there's an intellectual side to what we do, we're still rock ‘n' roll animals! It's all about the physicality of playing for me.
Q: What were the things that helped to pervert your mind, as a young lad in pre-punk Manchester?
SD: My brother was a painter, so as a teenager I'd read up on that stuff in my bedroom. It inspired me to search for things, to take control of my life, and not just live down the pub like a sheep. Then I'd read about the War Poets- people getting killed for no good reason. All of it made me questions things.
The other week, I met some bloke who'd been to Oxford University, and he couldn't believe the likes of me would be sitting around reading about existentialism; I've got no interest in being accepted by someone like that. I mean, forget about the Grand Tour, we were lucky if we got to fuckin' Blackpool for a daytrip.
Q: You've described yourself as a "conscientious objector" to work. Was there a moment of heightened insight, when you decided you wanted to do something creative rather than grafting pointlessly?
SD: Yeah, I worked in a foundry; I needed the money to buy an amp. I saw a bloke who went from fifteen to sixty-five retiring, and I thought "Is that all there is to life?" I refused to do piece work – where you flog yourself to death for another piece of cheese – and so they sent me home. That bus ride back was a trip to freedom. Next thing I knew, everyone had come out on strike to support me: that was a good education for me. After that, I jumped into the existential boxing ring and just got on with it.
That's what punk's all about: question things and question yourself.
Q: You've spoken about the song writing "Alchemy" between yourself and fellow founding Buzzcock, Pete Shelley. How does that work?
SD: Even during the first rehearsal, it was obvious that something was happening. While the band in the studio next door took all morning to start a song, we'd have a couple of songs written. But, I've got to say, if Pete was in my class at school, I wouldn't hang around with him: he's scientific and I'm more emotional.
He always says to me: "You're lucky you met me": but, then, he's lucky he met me!
Also see this write up of Buzzcock's Sprial Scratch
and the Buzzcocks website
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